Open Ocean at the Mystic Seaport Museum, 2018 - marymattinglystudio

Open Ocean at the Mystic Seaport Museum, 2018

“With every drop of water you drink, every breath you take, you're connected to the sea. No matter where on Earth you live. Most of the oxygen in the atmosphere is generated by the sea. Health to the ocean means health for us.” -Sylvia Earle

I came to this project as an artist with a background in photography and sculpture and a deep interest in human ties to the ocean.

The artwork I’m drawn to is more active and experiential, so I was immediately captivated by the functional objects in the museum’s collection: objects that may not be considered “art” in the traditional sense because of their use -value, and they aren’t considered “design” either because they often record an intimate experience, whether of geography, of fish, or trade.

What about everyday objects? What makes an object important to you? What story does that object contain? And which part of the High Seas has it traversed?

Open Ocean is an interpretation of the collections, archives, and storage of the Mystic Seaport Museum, with a focus on the high seas, a space outside of national jurisdiction. In the exhibition, the high seas are seen as a space of possibility and wonder; a place few people traverse but many desire to know better. The rules that govern are different there; in fact, to the detriment of human rights and oceans’ ecologies, sometimes it’s clear that there seem to be no rules at all. The fact that the high seas technically belong to - and are stewarded by - all has long captured my imagination as an almost utopian ideal. On smaller scales, social scientists like Nobel prize winner in economics, Elinor Ostrom, have discerned that commons located around the world have worked well when people trust each other and work together to care for a place through a more immediate governance system. The Open Ocean exhibition was designed to prompt a closer look at this often-overlooked space, presenting a compendium of objects that tell different stories when placed together.

Through my research into the collection, she found evidence of the extraction of living things, particularly fishing, and whaling, which reflected the abundance of life in the ocean at the time of the museum's collection. However, the over-extraction of life in the oceans has caused species to reach tipping points, contributing to a growing wealth disparity and ecosystem upset. The exhibition and book were designed to reflect a timeline of invention and change, exploring the human traumas that occurred on the high seas, from slavery and human trafficking to forced labor on factory ships.

The exhibition also stresses planetary interconnectedness and the need for the conservation of important natural spaces like the high seas. The oceans don't exist in a vacuum, and what happens in one place affects every place on Earth. It's crucial that we work locally and globally to conserve these spaces, and that more people and groups are given the opportunity to share their perspectives and have an impact on the future of the high seas.

Mystic Seaport Museum link
Wall Street Journal Coverage

Mary Mattingly at the Mystic Seaport Museum for Open Ocean, salt cod boxes, whale bone and shipping crates
Mary Mattingly at the Mystic Seaport Museum for Open Ocean, globes


Mary Mattingly at the Mystic Seaport Museum for Open Ocean, pocket watches
Mary Mattingly at the Mystic Seaport Museum for Open Ocean, whale bone and container ship
Mary Mattingly at the Mystic Seaport Museum for Open Ocean, whale bone and salt cod boxes

Even if we haven’t been there, we depend on the high seas daily. In 2019 I was able to draw from the Mystic Seaport Museum’s collection for "Open Ocean" which was an exhibition that explored a specific historical moment when the vast expanses of the high seas were well perceived as realms of awe, wonder, and boundless abundance. Examining these remnants through a current lens, the collection shifted its focus from a perspective of a vast, wide-open sea to one that reveals the visible marks of extraction. When most people don’t have direct access to the high seas, how can we learn about what’s going on there and how can the decisions we make help take care of them?

From the press release:

R.J. Schaefer Building at Mystic Seaport Museum

Open now through January 2021

Mary Mattingly is a leading contemporary artist from Brooklyn, New York, with an interest in the sea as a platform for artmaking. In 2018, she was invited to participate in a “think tank” at Mystic Seaport Museum that brought together eight prominent scholars from across the arts and humanities to participate in a day-long discussion with Museum staff, management, and trustees. It was funded jointly by Henry Luce and Chipstone foundations.

The invitation to her was made because of the frequent intersection of her practice with maritime subjects, including her continuing installation, “Swale,” a barge-based food forest in New York City that provides fresh produce to residents by circumventing laws prohibiting agriculture in the city. Mattingly spoke at the program about her work, and the concept of an ocean commons – a space for us to come together, a place of respite from conventional governance, a global system both liberating in its vastness and malleability and crushing in the responsibility it endows us with.

After that session, the Museum applied for and received a substantial grant from the Luce Foundation to support the curation and development of three new collection installations and related programming. These projects will provide new perspectives on the art and ensure the continued preservation and refinement of the collections while also promoting public access.

Mattingly’s exhibition is the first of the three. For several months she has immersed herself in the collections vault, poring over artworks, opening drawer after drawer of artifacts, in search of “evidence of how the sea has always challenged the rigidity of modern, terrestrial life; how its very nature permits a different tenor of creativity.”

From that, she has developed an exhibition that examines the oceans from three perspectives:

  • As a largely unknown space that is shared by everyone but governed by
  • As a massive component of private enterprise
  • As the “heart” of the planet, covering 71 percent of the Earth

So the stories the exhibition will tell are ones of time and space, invention and commerce, and climate change and depleted resources.


The name Mystic derives from the Pequot term missi-tuk, which means “a large river whose waters are driven into waves by tides or wind.” - Old Mystic History Center


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